‘It’s like the Royal Wedding of St. Jude’
Cancer survivors, co-workers at ALSAC and best friends, Lindsey and Joel marry on the campus of the hospital that saved their lives
This is a boy-meets-girl story, with complications. Because what love story for the ages ever came off without some complications?
Boy gets cancer.
Girl gets cancer, too.
Boy loses right arm, at age 7, but discovers his inner lefty. He takes up golf, and even plays on the baseball team. "I played first base and centerfield," he says, with pride. "I wasn’t the kid in right field who ate grass. I was part of the team."
Girl endures nearly two-and-a-half years of treatment. "When I started," she says, "all I could dream about and I could think about was going home. I just wanted to go home. And then somewhere in that treatment, the definition of home started to evolve a little bit." She decides, at age 10, she’ll work for the hospital someday.
Boy and girl meet for the first time in 1993, at a fundraiser for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, where he was treated for osteosarcoma and her treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia was continuing.
He’s 13, she’s 12.
"Those awkward ages," she says.
Oh, but aren’t they all?
"I definitely had a crush on him," she says. "And he didn’t talk to me."
Well, of course not. The boy had been rendered speechless by her awesomeness.
"I was taken aback by her," he says. "She could just be open and vulnerable and funny and intelligent in front of people, and I was just in awe of that from the first time I met her."
But the boy had survived cancer. Surely he could summon the strength to tell the girl how he really felt.
This being a love story for the ages, the answer, naturally, is yes.
It just took him 23 years.
A place of healing and transformation
Lindsey Wilkerson and Joel Alsup — cancer survivors, co-workers at the fundraising and awareness organization for St. Jude, and friends since childhood — were married on Sept. 1, 2018.
And where else but at St. Jude? Where else but on the campus of a hospital that didn’t simply heal them but shaped them, in profound ways? It sent them back into the world with an adventurous spirit, bent on embracing life and savoring days — whether it’s dragon boat races on the Mississippi River to raise money for St. Jude or karaoke at home on a Wednesday night.
“I think we’re both always up for anything new and exciting,” he said, “testing our limits, and making ourselves uncomfortable for a bit, to experience life and the world.”
Or, putting it another way that’s pure Joel: “I see having one arm as not a challenge, but a way to make every day a new kind of adventure. I cherish it. I cherish the challenge of having one arm. I love life, honestly, because of it.
“It is a big, silly, fun adventure every day.”
That’s Joel, who happily wears his heart on that one sleeve, whether he’s talking about marriage, or being a dad — “there’s no better job on earth” — to Audrey, 12, and Jacob, 8, Lindsey’s children from her first marriage.
“Look at all I’ve been given, and everything I have,” Joel said. “Despite the fact I lost an arm, I have great friends because of this place. Now I have the girl I’m marrying because of this place.
"She could just be open and vulnerable and funny and intelligent... I was just in awe of that from the first time I met her."
“So I’ve never felt bitter for one moment about what I went through, because of what’s been given to me.”
That’s Joel, who says he never doubted whether the doctors at St. Jude would save his life. And while they couldn’t save his arm, that was OK, too. He’d adapt, to the point of trying entirely new sports, and eventually becoming a triathlete.
But first, he had to learn how to tie his shoes again.
“That’s how I approached it — I’ve got to stick it out and get through it,” Joel said. “I was just always confident and positive in my own ability. And I think so much of that came from St. Jude.
“People here didn’t feel sorry for me. They said, ‘What do you want to do?’ and ‘We’re going to figure it out.’ ”
But if every St. Jude patient is on a journey, and Joel’s was driven by his positive outlook, Lindsey’s had a darker start: She thought she was going to die.
She was a fifth-grader whose early symptoms — no energy, loss of appetite — suggested a virus that was going around school at the time. But as others got better, she grew worse. She was turning gray. At Halloween that year, she went as a vampire — and was scary, she says, without makeup.
Look at all I’ve been given, and everything I have.
Despite the fact I lost an arm, I have great friends because of this place.
Now I have the girl I’m marrying because of this place.
Years later, Lindsey’s mother would tell her daughter exactly how she looked on Nov. 11, 1991, diagnosis day:
“What she saw, she said, was I looked like a corpse. She no longer recognized me.”
They wanted to Medevac Lindsey immediately from southwest Missouri to St. Jude in Memphis, but she balked, because she’d have to go alone, without her parents.
"When I was told I had cancer, I felt like that was a death sentence,” she said. “And so at that point it became, time is precious and I want to spend it with my family."
So they drove, as a family — Lindsey, her parents, and her grandmother, a breast-cancer survivor. It was a five-and-a-half-hour drive, and they arrived at something like 3 a.m. The night administrator met them with “this big bear hug,” and some news that did not quite compute:
Don’t worry about money. It’s already been taken care of.
Lindsey laughs about that now, how her parents, who had talked about putting the family home on the market to pay the impending bills, wondered if there was a catch.
“I don’t know if we thought it was kind of like cable, where you don’t pay for the first six months,” she said. “Like, ‘I’m not going to be in a contract for the rest of my life that I can’t afford?’ ”
St. Jude proved remarkable in other ways — and not just because Lindsey got well there. It’s where the shy, bashful girl found her voice. “All of the sudden I was wanting to talk,” she said. “I wanted to tell our story.”
Once again, her mother didn’t recognize her — but now in a good way. “I remember my mom asking one day at St. Jude, ‘What did you do to my daughter?’ ”
Lindsey came to love the place, so much so that it was “bittersweet” to leave. Think about that: Bittersweet. To leave a cancer hospital.
“Because this place,” she said, “is a place of transformation.”
Friendship and love
It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, that first meeting back in 1993 — even with Joel’s whole non-communicative thing.
Their paths would continue to cross through the years, at fundraising events or occasional hospital checkups. They’d run into each other as high schoolers, lose contact during the college years, and then reunite, inevitably, one day in late 2003.
Joel was already working for American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities (ALSAC), the fundraising and awareness organization for St. Jude. Lindsey was interviewing for a job.
“They were taking me around to see people I knew from my time period (as a patient),” she said. “And sure enough, we walked into this tiny little closet that had been converted to an office that Joel was sharing with somebody else.
“And there he was. I was like, ‘Hey!’ ”
Lindsey started work at ALSAC in early 2004. The friendship deepened. They could talk — really talk — survivor to survivor. They would work fundraising events together, conduct hospital tours together.
“And he was my best friend,” Lindsey said. “Still is.”
But the love story for the ages? That had to wait a few years yet. Lindsey had married in 2003, and would become a mom.
So, now slow-forward to the spring of 2016.
The two best friends found themselves single, and Joel was feeling brave.
“I’m like, I have to speak up at some point,” he said. “I’ve been impressed by her, and really liked her, since she was 12 years old. It took me 23 years to say something, but I’m glad I did.”
“We’d gone out, we’d had dinner,” Lindsey said. “Then we were watching a movie. We were watching Alien, of all things. I’d never seen it. So it wasn’t what you’d expect for a romantic evening — it wasn’t even planned to be romantic. It was just friends hanging out.
“And after the movie was over, neither one of us really got up and did anything. We didn’t move. We just kind of sat there by each other. That’s when he said he loved me.”
There it is — that ahh moment in this love story for the ages. It’s already become family lore. Key word: family. Because Joel isn’t just becoming a husband. He’s becoming a dad, too. And he’ll tell you that makes this quarter-century-in-the-making moment all the sweeter.
“Because it’s something, you know, honestly, I didn’t think I’d ever have,” he said. “I always wondered that — well, maybe subconsciously girls don’t like me because I have one arm. But now I’m like, this wonderful girl loves me and these wonderful kids love me.”
Audrey says Joel is funny and understanding, and, in maybe the ultimate endorsement any mother’s daughter ever gave: “If anybody were to remarry my mom, I’m glad that it’s him,” she said. “Because he means a lot to me and he’s always there for us. He’s amazing.”
Surviving and thriving
You don’t have to be a cancer survivor to be a part of Lindsey and Joel’s circle of friends. But it probably helps to understand the survivor’s dark sense of humor.
“We’ve got this running joke of the blood cancers versus the solid-tumor kids,” Lindsey said. “With Joel, he tells everybody I had the common cold of cancer because I had ALL. And so I say, ‘Well, he had one surgery and less than a year of chemo. Does that really count?’ ”
Or this spring, when a group of about ten of the friends gathered in a local restaurant to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Joel losing his right arm. They dubbed it an “ampu-versary.”
You can’t really buy a Hallmark card for that sort of thing, so they improvised.
“I bought this giant cake,” Lindsey said. “We went to the store and found an Incredible Hulk figurine. We pulled off his right arm, and we stuck the right arm up through the cake.”
“My stump’s birthday,” Joel said, laughing.
Because if you can lose an arm to childhood cancer, and 30 years later laugh about it, you’ve won, haven’t you? You’ve put cancer in its place. The humor may be dark, but it comes from a life-embracing place of joy — that place, it seems, where Lindsey and Joel live, and where others gravitate.
“Before I met them, I didn’t think it was OK to talk about cancer that way,” said Carlos Sepulveda, a fellow St. Jude survivor and ALSAC employee, and member of the wedding party.
“They’ve taught me to loosen up a bit, and they’ve taught me to enjoy life a little more. Before I met them, I was trying to learn my way through this cancer-survival label and what that meant. And I tend to be really risk averse. In a lot of respects, I’m the opposite of who they are.
“They’ve helped me carve my own path as a cancer survivor.”
Sepulveda calls Lindsey and Joel the “team captains” and “parents” of this circle of friends, which ebbs and flows in size and includes mostly, but not exclusively, survivors. They organize the gatherings, get everyone together, and set the tone, whether it’s celebrating a clean hospital scan or, well, marking the anniversary of an amputation.
“It’s always just been so fun to watch Joel kind of deal with that — Joel in particular because of the amputation,” said Angie Norwood, the wedding director, and a friend who doesn’t have childhood cancer in her past. “But really both of them, and that whole circle of friends sometimes, just the jokes they’re cracking, and comparing whose chemo was worse.
“Those of us who have not had to go through childhood cancer, it’s not in the forefront of your mind all the time. You let little things get to you. And then when you get around them, you kind of go, ‘Oh, wait. Those little things aren’t such a big deal.’ ”
A love story with a sense of place
Wedding day. The gold-domed Danny Thomas/ALSAC Pavilion, just steps from the hospital entrance.
Rarely has the here in “we are gathered here” meant quite so much.
Or, as Sepulveda put it: “It’s like the Royal Wedding of St. Jude.”
The officiant is Brent Powell, the St. Jude Director of Spiritual Care. There’s a reading by Dr. Melissa Hudson, Lindsey’s primary care doctor at St. Jude. Lindsey is walked down the aisle by her father and by Richard Shadyac Jr., president and CEO of ALSAC.
The maid of honor is Audrey, who you might say has always been in the family business of raising awareness for a certain hospital — as early as 2, she’d point to the St. Jude logo and say, “Saved Mommy’s life.”
It’s a wedding befitting a love story with such a strong sense of place. A wedding that’s right at home in this place of transformation.
Powell, speaking to Lindsey during the declaration of intention, says Joel describes her as loving, brave, beautiful, thoughtful and soulful. “Joel says you are resilient,” he continues, “a tireless family advocate, and frankly, a bit of a badass.”
Just as St. Jude made her, you might say.
Just as St. Jude made them both.
Survivors who savor each day, who embrace the now and welcome what’s next.
Survivors for whom mere survival isn’t nearly enough, who live large and laugh at the worst life’s thrown at them.
So, by the time they danced — yes, danced — down the aisle as husband and wife, there was the sense of a new story of survivorship being written here, by two people who know, really know, how to live.